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The Grief Police


The IFC seemed to be on its way to reality until early this year, when the political terrain at ground zero began to shift. Larry Silverstein’s Freedom Tower was in disarray, plagued by security concerns and the sense that there was simply no market for companies to move to ground zero at the prices he planned to charge. The governor was suddenly calling for a complete redesign. At about the same time, Kevin Rampe, the LMDC president who had been the families’ point man in the redevelopment process, left for a job in the private sector. Any stakeholder could clearly see that the entire situation was again in play. Then, on May 16, three days before the governor unveiled the design for the glass building that would house the IFC, the LMDC held an emergency meeting of its Family Advisory Board to discuss its plans for what many family members had at that point known only as the “cultural building.”

The IFC’s leaders insist their museum’s plans had been public for a year, but the family members who came to this meeting, including Ielpi, Kuo, and Iken, claim to have been dismayed. For starters, the IFC seemed much further along in the planning process than was the memorial. Not only that, but the IFC was to be in the glorious aboveground cultural building, designed by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, while the Arad memorial was planned for belowground—around the footprints and out of sight. Many of the family members had campaigned to preserve those footprints; now they worried no one would get past the IFC to visit them. The families already knew Larry Silverstein was getting 10 million square feet for businesses and the Port Authority was getting 600,000 square feet for shopping; now they learned that the cultural building was getting 250,000 square feet, while the memorial was getting just 100,000.

“When you see how that Snøhetta building looks on a big screen next to the memorial, it really takes away from the memorial,” Monica Iken says. “That’s when we were like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not what we wanted. I mean, first of all, you’re encroaching on our memorial. Our memorial needs to stand alone. And then you’re banking on our visitors to substantiate your institution going forward,’ because they’re gonna charge money to get in there. And that’s when the chaos began.”

The families had found a cause. What they needed next was a plan of action. Within weeks, a powerful tool was handed to them on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Depending on whom you talk to, Debra Burlingame is a bereaved Westchester housewife who single-handedly exposed plans to turn ground zero into a left-wing propaganda mill or a right-wing interloper who mutated ground zero into a conservative battleground. In either case, the 51-year-old flight attendant turned attorney and Court TV producer, whose brother Charles “Chic” Burlingame III was the pilot of the plane that crashed into the Pentagon, is known now as a cable-TV talking head and Journal opinion writer. Burlingame describes herself as a lifelong Democrat, but after 9/11 she found herself in direct opposition to the “Jersey Girls” who inspired the 9/11 Commission. She blasted the commissioners for being too critical of the Bush administration and not critical enough of Al Qaeda, and she was a featured speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. But she hadn’t been involved in ground zero until the end of last year, when she was tapped along with Ielpi and Iken for the board of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, the nonprofit that will raise money for and plan the Arad memorial and museum.

The families tapped into culture politics. This was no longer just a local development fight. Now it was a struggle between blue-collar American values and liberal elites.

A few family activists with long track records at ground zero were wary of Burlingame; she was new to the arena and had political baggage. But they were charmed by her in person; she was cordial and appeared to listen closely to everyone she met. On June 2, Burlingame, who declined to be interviewed for this story, paid a visit to Bernstein, Kunhardt, and the IFC’s president, Dick Tofel, at Bernstein’s offices in Chelsea Piers. Ielpi was there, too. At that meeting, she told no one that she had already handed in a draft of her op-ed about the IFC to the Journal. “It was clear she was unhappy with what we were doing,” Tofel remembers. “But it was very collegial. At the end, she handed out pictures of her brother as a boy, holding a model plane. We left knowing we had these two people on the board who had issues, but we were going to talk.”

Even Burlingame’s fellow family activists weren’t expecting the line of argument she introduced in her June 8 Journal op-ed, “The Ground Zero Heist.” The column opened with a scene of three wounded Marines visiting ground zero on Memorial Day weekend; then Burlingame declared that by the time a real 9/11 memorial is finished, it won’t be the tribute that these Marines would want but instead “a slanted history lesson, a didactic lecture on the meaning of liberty in a post-9/11 world.” Although the IFC was supposedly about freedom, she wrote, “do not be fooled into thinking that their idea of freedom is the same as those of the Marines.” She noted the irony of the LMDC’s giving millions of dollars to “the very same people who consider the post-9/11 provisions of the Patriot Act more dangerous than the terrorists.” She made much of the presence on the IFC board of Columbia historian Eric Foner, whom she described as “radical-left”; she lambasted Tom Bernstein for being on the board of Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), which had filed suit to stop the U.S. torture of prisoners; and she suggested that the museum would dwell more on the genocide of Native Americans than it would on 9/11 (a claim the IFC emphatically denied). “Ground zero has been stolen, right from under our noses,” she concluded. “How do we get it back?”

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